A Bumpy Reentry

Women landscape architects are finding the road from part-time to full-time work full of potholes.

By Jared Brey

Barbara Peterson, ASLA, is a night owl. During the 16 years she worked as a part-time landscape architect, she typically spent the hours of 9:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. sending emails, working on designs, and stamping plans. When her son, Eric, got a little older, she would pack a lunch and leave it in the fridge for him to take on his way to the bus in the morning. She spent much of her day carting him back and forth to sporting events and skateparks.

It was a relatively good balance for a professional and mom, she says, but in 2019, when Peterson decided to start working full-time again, she found the job-search process frustrating in new ways. She said a few firms “ghosted” her after the interview process, and at least one interviewer’s demeanor changed dramatically after she realized Peterson had been working part-time for so long. Peterson wanted to write about it on LinkedIn and Facebook, but “didn’t want it to be, oh, here’s me whining and complaining,” she says. So she sent around an informal survey to collect stories from other women in landscape architecture about “off-ramping,” “down-ramping,” and “on-ramping”—taking time off from a career or reducing hours and then reentering the full-time workforce.

Peterson got responses from approximately 50 designers, which she summarized in an article that she shared on social media. In it, she tried to dispel what she says are some of the myths about people who take time away from a design career: that they won’t be passionate about the work when they return, won’t be able to multitask, will have forgotten certain skills or won’t be able to learn new ones, and so on. Those beliefs reflect biases against people who follow “nonlinear” career paths, Peterson says. Some respondents to Peterson’s survey said they’d been asked interview questions that showed those biases explicitly, such as how many children they were expecting to have, or whether they would prioritize their families over their work, despite it being illegal to make hiring decisions based on such factors.

Far from being a detriment, time spent on other pursuits—like watching how young kids use parks, streetscapes, public spaces, or, in Peterson’s son Eric’s case, construction job sites—can give designers important insights, Peterson believes. (Eric is in college now, studying architecture.)

For Jeanne Lukenda, ASLA, the vice president of communications for ASLA and the chair of ASLA’s Task Force on Women in the Landscape Architecture Profession, reading about Peterson’s experience was depressingly familiar. Many of the issues Peterson discussed are those that have been talked about in professional circles for years and are a focus of the task force’s work. “Many of us [on the task force] are mid- to senior-career people, and we haven’t seen enough change in our own careers,” she says.

Barbara Peterson, ASLA, highlights the challenges faced by those with nonlinear career paths. Photo courtesy LPCI.

Firms that don’t provide clear pathways for people to start or expand their families lose out on top talent, she says. Women specifically leave those firms, often meaning that men who aren’t taking time away to raise children are left to fill leadership roles, which perpetuates the cycle. Lukenda says the ASLA task force and other groups, like WxLA and the Women in Landscape Architecture Professional Practice Network, are endeavoring to make professional culture better for women. “Our collective goal is to be talking about being where we need to be,” Lukenda says.

Last summer, Diversity x Landscape Architecture (DxLA), a group formed by ASLA California Sierra members, held a panel discussion on parenting and landscape architecture. One of the panelists, Melissa Ruth, ASLA, a principal of Callander Associates in Gold River, California, talked about the give-and-take she had to negotiate as she raised her sons, Eli and Leo, and worked to become a partner and owner of the firm. Ruth later came across Peterson’s survey on LinkedIn and shared a few experiences with her.

For Ruth, it’s important that firms communicate clearly to their employees what flexibility is available in terms of part-time work, remote work, and leave. It’s difficult for expecting or aspiring parents to manage their professional lives—especially if they want to move into leadership roles—if they don’t have good pay, benefits, and childcare options lined up. “If those all align, then I think it’s possible,” Ruth says. “But it is definitely [an issue] that is not solved.”

Jared Brey is a freelance reporter in Philadelphia and a contributing editor to LAM.

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